Gala honors founders of land trust that created rail trail

The Wallkill Valley Land Trust will hold its 30th Anniversary Gala Dinner Benefit on October 1 at Garvan’s. The event will feature a live and silent auction and will honor its founders: Kitty Brown, Fran Dunwell, Kate Hudson, Jim Ottaway Jr., William Rhoads, Johanna Hecht Sokolov, Jean Bartlett, John Jacobs, Robert Lasher, Jay LeFevre and Seward Weber. Pictured are Kitty Brown, Jay LeFevre, Jim Ottaway Jr. and William Rhoads. (illustration by Lauren Thomas)

This Sunday, October 1, the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a Gala Dinner Benefit and first-ever Live and Silent Auction. Taking place at the Pavilion at Garvan’s, the event will honor the organization’s eleven founding directors, both living — Kitty Brown, Fran Dunwell, Kate Hudson, Jim Ottaway Jr., William Rhoads and Johanna Hecht Sokolov — and dead: Jean Bartlett, John Jacobs, Robert Lasher, Jay LeFevre and Seward Weber.

With ticket prices starting at $150 per person, this year’s gala was already sold out at presstime: a tribute not only to the popularity of the venue, but also to the tremendous regard in which WVLT is held by the local community. There’s plenty of good reason for that, as any regular user of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail can tell you — not to mention any entrepreneur whose business has prospered thanks to the tourism dollars brought to the area by the rail trail and other scenic amenities preserved over the past three decades by WVLT.

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But it was not ever thus. Those who were involved in the early days of the organization can clearly recall the worst-case-scenario thinking that was aired at some of the public planning meetings that occurred circa 1990, when WVLT was negotiating with ConRail for the acquisition of 12.2 miles of decommissioned railbed in New Paltz and Gardiner. Some residents envisioned gangs of the rail-trail equivalent of highwaymen stalking innocent families, or joggers having to go armed for fear of hunters.

Although there are still occasional incidents where trail-users stray off the path onto private property, or scofflaws bring noisy, erosion-producing all-terrain vehicles onto the rail trail, in general the nightmares of its neighbors failed to materialize. Thousands of local residents fell in love with the many recreational uses afforded by the trail’s proximity, and word-of-mouth quickly spread to Tri-State Metro Area weekenders. Nowadays even some of the project’s most vocal early skeptics, such as the owners of Dressel Farms, have come to appreciate that their businesses enjoy more profit from agritourists lured by the trail than they suffer from the odd apple thief. With WVLT’s acquisition and reconstruction of the Rosendale Trestle, completed in 2013, the hub is now in place for a county-spanning network of rail trails that will eventually link the Catskills with Orange and Dutchess Counties, and is expected to make Ulster the epicenter of active outdoor tourism for the entire region.

Among the most consistent repositories of institutional memory for the organization is Jim Ottaway Jr., who has not only been WVLT’s treasurer since the days of its founding, but also, with his wife Mary, donated a conservation easement on a 65-acre parcel of farmland in Gardiner that today is home to the Phillies Bridge Farm CSA. Ottaway is quick to give Kitty Brown — then Kitty Vermilyea — primary credit for getting the organization up and running in 1987, after attending a conference sponsored by the Dutchess County Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land (TPL). Seward Weber, then executive director of the Mohonk Preserve, offered to host a smaller regional workshop on land trusts, also sponsored by TPL. The Rondout/Esopus Land Conservancy, the Woodstock Land Conservancy and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust all grew out of that second conference at Mohonk.

“We all felt a need to protect our beautiful landscapes from too much development,” says Ottaway of the original core group. “We were inspired by Kitty to do something about it. She showed the way forward.” He also cites the early contributions of Rose Harvey, now commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who at the time worked in TPL’s New York headquarters in Saratoga. Harvey has been invited to speak at Sunday’s gala. “She was sort of our coach,” Ottaway remembers.

Early WVLT meetings took place in the homes of Jay LeFevre, Kitty Brown, Bob Lasher and John Jacobs, he recalls. “We were all volunteers, until we hired our first part-time executive director, Steve Ruelke, in 1992.” By then, in addition to the rail trail acquisition, WVLT already had a number of conservation easements under its belt, beginning with the 88-acre Norman Kellar Farm in the Town of Esopus. You can credit that transaction with the fact that your view of the Shawangunk Ridge en route to Tillson from New Paltz along Route 32 North remains unspoiled to this day. Many other such land preservation deals followed, including the Two Farms Campaign completed in 2007 in partnership with the Open Space Institute, which keeps the 104-acre Jewett Farm and 75-acre Huguenot Street Farm in active agricultural use.

Today, WVLT has preserved nearly 3,000 acres of open space and viewsheds in the public interest. It’s one of about 1,500 land trusts in the US, and only 450 accredited by the Land Trust Alliance, according to Ottaway, who calls them “a very important part of the modern environmental movement — a national effort to protect important and endangered landscapes.” He notes that land trusts like WVLT have preserved more than 56 million acres in the US: more than double the acreage contained in all of the National Parks in the Lower 48 states.

Ottaway’s personal commitment to WVLT grew out of a need to feel “grounded in my hometown — a beautiful place I wanted to help conserve” at a time in his career when he was president of the International Group of Dow Jones & Co., responsible for the European and Asian editions of the Wall Street Journal. “It helped me feel that I had roots in New Paltz when I was flying to Singapore on business,” he recalls.

For more information or to make your own contribution to the ongoing work of WVLT, visit www.wallkillvalleylt.org.

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